The climate change crisis and the push for sustainable technologies are driving the work of five engineering professors and their research teams at Western’s Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternative Resources (ICFAR).
“The visible effects of climate change all over the world and the public discussion occurring among the world’s nations are increasing the urgency to find solutions to curb the increase of greenhouse gas emissions and to capture and sequester carbon,” said Franco Berruti, ICFAR director and Industrial Research Chair for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
ICFAR is a hub for vigorous research activities that work to transform waste and by-products, including biomass residues from agriculture and forestry, organic municipal wastes, plastics and heavy oils, into value-added products with the lowest possible environmental impact and carbon footprint.
Some innovative and promising work being conducted at ICFAR include transforming waste into carbonized materials that can be used as soil amendments and fertilizers, as well as an efficient and cost-effective carbon sequestration solution. The institute’s unique research couples thermochemical and biological conversion processes thereby gaining the synergistic benefits of both technologies, Berruti said.
In the quest to tackle the issue of climate change head-on, the ongoing research and development activities led by Berruti and colleagues Cedric Briens, Charles Xu, Naomi Klinghoffer, and Dominic Pjontek, with their team of 60 researchers at ICFAR, are in high demand. Western recently approved a five-year renewal of ICFAR’s work, enabling Berruti’s team to continue to expand its industry partnerships and pursue internal collaborations across Western.
“I am very excited about ICFAR’s renewal and by the University’s commitment to promoting R&D activities in the field of environmental sustainability,” said Berruti. “The ICFAR team is re-energized by the renewal and working hard to optimize our resources.”
ICFAR was established in 2009, through provincial government funding, to become a centre for innovative sustainable technologies, serving as a bridge between Western’s research outcomes and industrial commercialization. It is also working with colleagues across campus in a variety of disciplines, including the Faculty of Science and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
“The industrial relationships we have established at ICFAR have led to the creation of three NSERC Industrial Research Chairs, and tens of industry contracts,” said Berruti. “The benefit of these programs provides our students the opportunity to work on industry-relevant research and to interact closely with industry partners, making them more competitive and industry-ready.”
The work at ICFAR is fueled by a diverse group of graduate students, postdocs, research associates and technologists from all over the world.
Neha Batta, PhD candidate with ICFAR, began her journey with the institute while doing her masters degree. She joined a project that was commensurate with her non-engineering background in biotechnology at Panjab University in India.
“There was a readiness to let me learn and grow into engineering along with recognition for what I could bring to the project,” said Batta. “It gave me a chance to explore interdisciplinary research and venture into engineering.”
As part of ICFAR’s waste-to-resource initiative, Batta’s research investigates ways to develop processes that combine chemical and biochemical treatment of agri-waste-derived fibers, which can further be made into high-quality, sustainable textile products or bio-composites.
“Working at ICFAR, and in collaboration with industry, has helped me gain perspective on matters from the industry and academia points of view,” said Batta. “There is a wonderful working dynamic here since we get to interact and grow on both ends. On the one hand, there is academic growth where the focus is to gain knowledge and expertise, and on the other hand is the industry experience where we get to learn how technology development would be in an actual workspace.”
Upon completing her PhD, Batta hopes to make the most of her expertise and combined experiences at ICFAR to continue working towards the development of technologies and systems that promote waste utilisation and a circular economy.